Liza Minnelli Gets an Earnest Tribute … Liz Smith Attempts to Sing

Liza!

Ben Vereen was staring reverently, joyfully at Liza Minnelli as he addressed the crowd in the Pierre Hotel ballroom. “How appropriate to start off the millennium, this millennium, with us sitting here giving praise and honor to–” he paused dramatically, ” our lady .”

Somehow, appropriate was not the word that came to mind as The Transom watched Mr. Vereen breathily pace the stage at the Drama League’s Jan. 31. salute to Ms. Minnelli. Here in the new millennium, well into an affluent digital age of self-consciousness and caution, 430 swells had paid between $400 and $875 a head to watch a collection of performers with not a self-reflective bone spur among them (Sam Harris! Chita Rivera!) celebrate a colleague whose life had too often resembled the public evisceration scene in Braveheart . Why, even the gossip columnist Liz Smith had thrown caution to the wind and gotten on stage in white cowboy boots to caterwaul her appreciation.

This was not appropriate. This was entertainment.

If there was a moment that grounded this 20th-century emote fest in the 21st century, it was a cheeky taped segment featuring Australian comedian Barry Humphries as Dame Edna Everage with a confession to make to Liza.

In video close-up, Dame Edna explained: “You see, after your triumphant first night at the Palace Theater, when you did your wonderful, wonderful show, I came back and we cuddled a bit, didn’t we? We hugged each other, and I was crying.” Here the emotional Dame Edna stifled a dry sob. “I didn’t tell you, Liza, but I’m going to tell you now, I think if I was there in the flesh , I’d break down.”

Going back “a long time,” Ms. Everage recalled a time when “I was a very, very young aspiring actress, no more than a rather precocious and sophisticated teenager” who had won a competition to go to Hollywood. There, sitting by the pool one day, no doubt looking smashing in a tank suit, Ms. Everage met Ms. Minnelli’s father, Vincente Minnelli.

“He learned a little of my aspirations. Oh, I was so young, so silly,” said Ms. Everage coquettishly. “And he offered me a very small role in a film he was making called Cabin in the Sky , which was a musical featuring an all-black cast. It was a long time ago. I did the best I could in that tiny role, but sadly it ended up on the cutting room floor. You see, there wasn’t much room for a purple-headed little Australian ingénue in that film even though it was in black and white.”

Ms. Everage said that Ms. Minnelli’s father apologized and took her for a meal at Chasen’s. “My eyes were like saucers,” said the dame. “We may have had a little too much champagne. I was, as I told you, young and vulnerable. But this is the hard part, Liza. This, is the hard part. We, we had,” she struggled to finish the sentence, “an intimate moment. Why it happened? Your wonderful mother was off on tour. I suppose he was bowled over a little by my youth and my bone structure.” The crowd loved that line.

Weeks later, Ms. Everage explained, “Dr. Marcus Welby confirmed that I was to have a little one. My body started changing. I was in a panic. Who was I to tell? My parents in Australia would disown me. I would never have a career. I’d disgraced myself with a caring and wonderful man.” Ms. Everage was looking even more moist than when she started. But then, she said, “a miracle happened.” After she contacted Mr. Minnelli, “He told your saintly mother, and Judy adopted you.” The crowd roared.

Dame Edna then fondly recalled that the infant Liza “had a little black mop of hair and loved to wear fishnet stockings, even when I was breast feeding.” Then she grew even more emotional. “You were snatched from me, and I’ve missed you over all these years,” she said, adding in between sniffles and sobs, “I’ve seen all your shows, and I just want you to know, darling Liza, that next time we meet if you ever forgive me, don’t call me Edna. Call me Mom!”

From there, things got progressively more earnest, which meant, often, that they were even more riveting. Here, on stage at the Pierre was an entire year’s worth of material for Martin Short or Rick Moranis, or the entire SCTV cast, for that matter.

In the middle of performing “Magic to Do,” Mr. Vereen broke into a piano-accompanied stage patter in which he explained that he had been on his way to Tunisia that very afternoon when the phone rang and he was informed that the Drama League was honoring “our lady.” Mr. Vereen explained that ever since meeting Ms. Minnelli, “my life has never been the same.”

“I love this woman. I love this woman with all my heart. I love you for loving her,” said Mr. Vereen. “And what people don’t know and the press don’t take into consideration is that coming back on adversity is not an easy thing to do. And when you took the initiative to come back and stand on the stage,” Mr. Vereen explained, it was not because of ego, but because of Ms. Minnelli’s “devotion and your love for the people, for your craft.”

At this, Mr. Vereen roused the crowd to stand up and give Ms. Minnelli a standing ovation, which lasted for a long time.

Then Mr. Vereen said: “You see, the point is, we of the American theater. We , of the theater. We , of the arts. We here in America must honor our own. We must pay tribute to our own.”

Mr. Vereen thanked the Drama League and then told a story about Ms. Minnelli. “You know, Liza taught me something some time ago,” he said, pacing back and forth to the tinkling ivories. “She joined me one day, and I was feeling bad that day. I had a matinee that day. And I said, ‘I don’t think I can make it. I’m too tired.’”

Well, Mr. Vereen said, Ms. Minnelli looked at him and said, “No, this is what we do. This is why we were placed here.” He sounded like an evangelist now. “So you must go forth and do that,” Mr. Vereen said, still channeling Ms. Minnelli. “She said, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention. The necessary things you need will be there when you step upon the boards.’” Cue music, and Mr. Vereen delved back into “Magic to Do.” “Maybe this time we’ll be lucky,” he sang.

The crowd had to be feeling lucky. Dr. Ruth Westheimer was soon to come out and sing, well, actually read, from index cards, “Arthur in the Afternoon.” Then she was carried off by a shirtless, muscle-bound man who seemed to impress even Dr. Westheimer, the diminutive doyenne of dalliance. She would be followed by Sam ( Star Search ) Harris, who said that he and Ms. Minnelli came from the “Belter Belt” where “Less is–well, less,” and Ms. Rivera, whose physical trainer, if she has one, should be a millionaire.

The finale, of course, was Ms. Smith, whom The Transom, in all sincerity, can only admire for getting up on stage before hundreds of people and letting her freak flag fly. Ms. Smith always handles herself with grace and good humor in public settings.

That said, Ms. Smith should think twice about singing in public again. Even though she had help from a chorus of extras and even from the audience at times, Ms. Smith’s singing brought to mind that scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 where Donald Sutherland smashes his head into a live cat.

Ms. Smith looked smart in a cowboy hat and what looked like an old uniform of General Custer’s. “I’m going to sing because I’ve been told that I have the phrasing, the style of Frank Sinatra, even if I do have the voice of Dame Edna. So it’ll be all right,” said Ms. Smith. “I need help, though.”

She was joined on stage by a chorus of shapely men and women. Earlier in the evening, Ms. Rivera had been cavorting on stage with a bunch of buff men. “Chita had boys, but I got girls and boys,” said Ms. Smith. “One of my favorite combinations.”

The band struck up the tune of “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” but Ms. Smith was working off another lyric sheet.

“There is glitz and guts/ And Fosse struts/ Deep in the heart of Liza!/ Sequins and dungarees/ Chanel and Eloise/ Deep in the heart of Liza!”

Ms. Smith vocalized in a twang that seemed to have been stolen straight from Annie Get Your Gun .

“Yes, there are Vincente’s eyes and there are Judy’s thighs/ Deep in the heart of Liza!”

Then, in a scripted moment, she stopped the band, which was led by Billy Stritch. “Wait a minute,” said the gossip columnist. The band was going too fast, and there wasn’t enough audience participation.

“I want you all to imagine that you are Tommy Tune in high heels . I want you to sing with me. I want you to clap . Liza, you too .”

Ms. Smith started up again, this time with some real support.

“Her heart is full and stuffed

My God is that Sid Luft?

Deep in the heart of Liza!”

When the group reached, “Those lush Minnelli lips and two bionic hips,” there were a few titters in the audience for the wrong reasons, but everyone loved it when Ms. Smith really threw herself into,

“Just take a closer look/ Shit! There’s Lorna’s book!”

Ms. Smith wrapped her vocal cords around the epithet as if she’d suddenly found herself back on the Texas plains with no water and a rattlesnake in her boot.

On the last verses the crowd was really with Ms. Smith. When she bellowed, “And there’s a final plus/ Because there is all of us [ clap-clap-clap ]/ Deep in the heart of Liza!”

Then the piano got quiet and Ms. Smith was solo again.

“And let me say, I’m proud/ John Simon’s not allowed …,” a reference to the New York magazine critic who panned Ms. Minnelli’s Minnelli on Minnelli show.

The crowd cheered at this and then, before Ms. Minnelli got up on stage and hugged everyone in sight, Ms. Smith, the audience and the chorus brought it all home, shaking the moldings of the Pierre ballroom and letting the world know that the Belter Belt was alive and emoting in the digital age.

“Deep in the heart of!”

“He’s not a part of!” they sang, as if they could, tarantella-like, cast Mr. Simon from this earth.

“Deep in the heart of!”

“Liza!”

The Transom Also Hears

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